A coalition of nonprofits is seeking to change the discourse of budget talks in Wisconsin.
The group, which includes but is not limited to Citizen Action of Wisconsin, Wisconsin Council of Churches and League of Women Voters of Wisconsin, has proposed “A Wisconsin Budget for All.” It’s a preemptive strike given the official state budget Gov. Scott Walker is expected to propose Wednesday.
“We actually could make good investments if we improved the tax code,” said Robert Kraig, executive director of Citizen Action of Wisconsin, during an editorial board meeting Wednesday at the Leader-Telegram.
The gist of the proposal repurposes around $900 million in funds that would be saved by eliminating a manufacturing and agriculture tax credit and treating capital gains as ordinary income to invest in three core areas: health, education and workforce.
“There is no linkage between that huge tax giveaway and job creation,” said Ken Taylor of the Wisconsin Budget Project.
Specific investments would include:
• Workforce ($335 million): Expand the Earned Income Tax Credit, implement a green transitional jobs program and provide living wages for caregivers.
• Education ($315 million): Free technical college, literacy for all children by the third grade, and hiring and retaining more teachers.
• Health ($240 million): Battle the opioid epidemic, protect children from lead, and expand BadgerCare.
Sandra McKinney of Eau Claire-based JONAH said county surveys have found that respondents’ top concerns, from first to fourth, are safety, the protection and health of children, safe water, and streets and highways.
“That really fits with the budget being proposed,” she said.
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Walker announced Wednesday he will provide greater support for the state’s rural schools through sparsity and transportation aids in his budget proposal. He also plans to increase investments in broadband and technology grants, and make it easier for school districts to recruit teachers.
“Every student matters, and there’s no doubt that Wisconsin’s rural school districts face unique challenges,” Walker said in a news release. “We also plan to provide a significant increase for all of Wisconsin’s public schools in our budget, and the details on our total investment in K-12 education will be released soon.”
State Rep. Kathy Bernier, R-Lake Hallie, responded to the alternative budget after a news conference Wednesday in Eau Claire.
“I, for one, would like to take a more comprehensive look at the entire tax system rather than picking out one or two items to isolate,” she told Leader-Telegram reporter Lauren French. “I think we need to be more comprehensive than that.”
Maybe so. Ultimately, the budget that will be introduced next week and eventually passed will bear little resemblance to “A Wisconsin Budget for All.” Its authors begrudgingly accept that fact, especially considering a Republican hold on the governorship and both houses of the Legislature.
Nevertheless, the detailed proposal puts some issues up for debate that might not have been otherwise. Backers want the public to know that state budgets involve choices, not just cuts. Tax incentives are necessary at times in economic development, but they also should be transparent, accountable and productive.
The bottom line is that everything should be on the table during budget talks; no ideas should go unturned.
“We can only hope that this Legislature will pay attention to some of the things ... in this document,” said Jeff Smith, a former state representative.